There was more buzz this week at two big Colorado River Basin events about the idea of a “grand bargain” to deal with coming collisions between water overallocation and the Law of the River.
The idea crept into the title of the Water Education Foundation’s 2019 Santa Fe Symposium – “Can We Build a Bridge to a Grand Bargain in the Basin?”. It also came up repeatedly at the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s fall water seminar, including in a luncheon keynote by the University of Colorado’s Doug Kenney, who has done a lot of the analytical heavy lifting on the idea.
While most of the people yakking about it in public right now are folks unaffiliated with organized water interests (folks like, well, me), the interesting thing right now is the behind-the-scenes conversations among decision makers within the system. There’s been positive interest across geographic and water-using communities, including both Upper and Lower Basin folks, and both ag and municipal water users.
My collaborator Eric Kuhn, the former general manager of of the Colorado River Water Conservation District well known as a staunch defender of rural Colorado West Slope water interests, is in the middle of all this, speaking at both events. While the ideas has many parents, Eric has come to be identified with it in part because, now that he’s retired, he can thrown down a bit more than when he had the portfolio of obligations that comes with running an agency.
The idea’s been kicking around for more than a decade, but it was in fact Eric who first publicly documented what to that point had been private discussions. In a widely read 2012 white paper (p. 41, pdf here), Eric detailed a conversation at a 2005 meeting of the basin states principles at a hotel here in Albuquerque. The details are arcane (click through for Eric’s explanation) but the idea is that each basin gives up politically treasured but practically unrealistic interpretations of the Law of the River in a compromise that avoids litigation and provides more certainty for the water management communities in both basins.
…scarcity is the mother of invention, and western states are coming up with innovative ways to save water. One was a pilot program which ran from 2015 to 2018 and paid farmers—including [Paul] Kehmeier—about $200 for every acre-foot of water that they had the right to but did not use…
Over the course of four years, the pilot program sponsored 64 projects, conserving an estimated 46,000 acre-feet of water. There was so much interest in some districts that participants had to be selected via a lottery system. Participating farmers closed off some of their irrigation canals, allowing water that would normally go to their fields to flow downstream; at the same time, water administrative agencies and environmental groups like The Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited helped monitor flow rates.
The pilot cost about $8.5 million, with funding coming almost entirely from the major municipalities that rely on the Colorado River, including Denver, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Now the states in the upper Colorado River basin are exploring how to scale it up. Colorado has formed a series of working groups, set to meet for the first time in September, which will tackle questions like who will foot the bill for a large-scale program (which could run in the hundreds of millions of dollars), how to ensure participating farmers are legally allowed to lease out their water rights, and what sort of mechanisms can safeguard conserved water as it makes its way to reservoirs…
Not everyone is thrilled about the possibility of a water market in the upper Colorado River. “Let’s be honest about what it is that we’re doing here: paying farmers not to farm, and drying up land to buy water,” says David Harold, a sweet-corn farmer from Olathe, Colorado, who participated in the pilot program for one year. “This is ‘buy-and-dry’ with another name,” he says, referring to the practice of cities buying land purely for the water rights tied to them, leaving rural communities parched and jobless…
Harold isn’t the only skeptic. “Every single person I interviewed mentioned ‘buy-and-dry,’” says Kelsea MacIlroy, a PhD student at Colorado State University who interviewed 34 irrigators and water experts in western Colorado to understand local perceptions of a demand management program, which is a technical name for a water market where farmers can lease out their water. “People said ‘maybe it’s not exactly the same thing, but we’re afraid that demand management could lead to ‘buy and dry.’’’
Some, like Harold, see a water market as putting their counties on the road towards becoming another Crowley. But others view a demand management program as a way to avoid the fate of Crowley County. As the pressure mounts along the Colorado River, something’s got to give, and a water market—in which farmers choose to lease their water out for a set period, regaining it again when the program times out—is a more palatable option than selling their water entitlements outright. “Demand management is different than ‘buy and dry’ because it leaves the water in the hands of the farmer,” says Kehmeier…
For a demand management program to significantly reduce water security risks along the Colorado River, it will need to attract a lot of farmers and funding. Policymakers are envisioning a scaled-up version of the pilot that could lease out as much as half a million acre-feet of water by 2026, costing around $100 million. But even that won’t keep the Colorado River from over allocation. That’s why, MacIlroy says, some of the irrigators she spoke with felt demand management “was a Band-Aid and that there’s no point in continuing that conversation unless there are efforts being made to address the larger issues in the Colorado River.”
Here’s the release from Arizona State University (Marshall Terrill):
The Southwest’s long-standing drought has left the state staring down a historic and first-ever Colorado River water cutback in 2020.
Starting Jan. 1, Arizona will see a 6.9% reduction of Colorado River water under the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, which was finalized in May with California, Nevada and the federal government. Mexico will give up 3% of its allotment under a separate agreement.
The cuts are part of a plan to keep Lake Mead, a reservoir at the Arizona-Nevada boundary, functional. Water levels for both Lake Mead and Lake Powell have precipitously dropped as a result of historic over-allocation and a drought that started in 2000.
Question: Are these cuts a move that has been anticipated for some time, and should Arizona residents be worried?
Answer: Yes, the cuts have been anticipated and were agreed to by the parties to the Drought Contingency Plan or DCP. In fact, until a few months ago, we expected deeper cuts, but good mountain snowpack last winter and aggressive conservation efforts shored Lake Mead up a bit. The cuts are part of a larger plan to safeguard the Colorado River system. The plan was negotiated for several years and finalized this spring.
The Lower Basin DCP incentivizes conserving water in Lake Mead while also imposing bigger and bigger cuts should lake levels fall to certain levels. Water users on the Central Arizona Project, which brings Colorado River water to central and southern Arizona, are in line to take largest cuts because they are the lowest priority users.
The 2020 cuts won’t really be felt by Arizona water users because the state has never built out demand for all of its Colorado River supplies. For years, Arizona water managers have used “extra” Colorado River water for aquifer recharge and other purposes. Annually starting in 2015, Arizona has voluntarily conserved in Lake Mead the equivalent amount of this year’s cut.
Rather than worry, Arizona residents should continue to find ways to permanently use water more efficiently. Statewide, Arizona uses the same amount of water today as it did in the mid-1950s, though we now have seven or eight times the population and a much larger economy. There are still lots of opportunities to stretch our water supplies through conservation and efficiency measures.
Q: Who will be the first group of people to feel the sting of cuts in Colorado River supplies?
A: If Lake Mead falls below 1,075-feet elevation, Arizona will take additional cuts and farmers in Pinal County will be the first to feel the impacts. They plan to turn to groundwater (that is, water pumped from wells) to make up for some of those cuts.
Cities are in a different situation. Municipal providers that use CAP supplies tend to have high priority rights, so they would be among the last CAP users to experience cuts. Many cities in the Phoenix and Tucson areas have diverse water portfolios, including groundwater, reclaimed water and other surface water, which gives them a measure of resilience against cuts in Colorado River supplies. And since passage of the 1980 Groundwater Management Act, growth has been tied to long-term water supplies in the state’s most populous areas, so water providers must plan well in advance for foreseeable supply reductions.
Q: So if agricultural is the first to take a hit, will this mean the cost of fruits and vegetables will likely go up — and by how much?
A: That’s a question for an economist, but I will note that Arizona’s agriculture industry is not monolithic when it comes to water supplies. Right now, only Pinal County farmers are facing cuts — other Arizona farmers have higher priority Colorado River rights or get their water from other sources. Two-thirds of Pinal County’s agricultural revenues come from cattle and dairy. That production will not be directly affected by cuts in CAP deliveries. The county’s main irrigated crops are cotton and hay.
Q: What’s the effect going to be on individual households and what should consumers be mindful of, or start practicing?
A: For some households, water rates may increase as their water providers take additional steps to ensure water deliveries in the event of decreased Colorado River supplies. In addition, some households in newer developments in Maricopa, Pinal and Pima Counties depend on groundwater and are required to pay into a fund to purchase water supplies to replenish the groundwater withdrawn for their use. This amount shows up as an assessment on county property-tax bills. As fewer supplies become available, the costs of water to meet the replenishment obligation may also increase.
We should always treat water as the precious resource it is here in Arizona. The single best way for an individual household to help is to permanently reduce the amount of water used for outside landscaping.
Q: Is this going to be the new normal or a sign of things to come?
A: We should think of this as the new normal. Lake Mead is over-allocated. The prolonged drought has exacerbated the problem because it results in less extra water in the system. There are signs that the region is aridifying, meaning that average flows in the Colorado River may decrease.
We shouldn’t overlook the conservation efforts that are critical to keeping the Colorado River system functional. The Drought Contingency Plan includes important ground rules for conserving water in Lake Mead, and Arizona’s Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Gila River Indian Community, along with CAP, will be conserving and storing significant quantities of water in the lake.
Here’s a guest column from USBR Commissioner Brenda Burman that’s running in The Hill:
One hundred fifty years ago, John Wesley Powell and his small band of courageous explorers captured the nation’s imagination as they completed their first expedition down the Colorado River. Powell and his team faced the unknown, and they came through the river’s canyons with a hard-earned appreciation for the Colorado River as a precious, but limited resource. His vision of diverting water for agriculture contributed to the Reclamation Act of 1902 and the birth of the Bureau of Reclamation.
Powell’s descriptions of Western water scarcity helped inspire American investment in water storage and conveyance infrastructure up and down the Colorado River — forward-thinking investment that built facilities like Glen Canyon Dam with his namesake reservoir, Lake Powell; Hoover Dam with Lake Mead; and other important reservoirs.
Today, that system of reservoirs can store four times the average annual inflow of the Colorado River Basin — absolutely critical storage for the life and livelihood of 40 million people across the West. In fact, without Lake Powell, Lake Mead and other key storage reservoirs along the Colorado River, the basin would have already faced an overwhelming water crisis many years ago.
The century and a half since Powell’s expedition brought many challenges and innovative solutions for the Colorado River. A year ago, the basin was suffering its fifth driest year in over a century; another abysmal datapoint in one of the driest 20-year periods of the last 1,200 years. In contrast, as recently as 2000, both Lake Powell and Lake Mead were nearly full. The water stored in those massive reservoirs blunted the effects of prolonged drought and protected cities, farms and families across the basin from devastating water shortage impacts.
In fact, Colorado River reservoirs helped ensure water deliveries each year during the current 20-year drought — enabling certainty and predictability for water users while avoiding the need for shortage declarations. That’s the value of water storage reservoirs and the lasting legacy of past water leaders like John Wesley Powell.
Unfortunately, not all Western river basins are positioned to withstand the effects of prolonged drought. For example, water storage infrastructure in California’s Sacramento River Basin stores less than one year’s average flow — that’s not enough to sustain ever-increasing demand. As water scarcity in the West becomes more challenging, stretching existing supplies while expanding and improving water storage infrastructure is even more important. We must strengthen our ability to capture, store and deliver limited water supplies while maximizing efficiency to enhance conservation.
While our Colorado River reservoirs have performed very well through prolonged severe drought, we cannot simply maintain the status quo. In January 2019, the combined storage of Lakes Powell and Mead fell to just 38 percent of capacity. That’s what brought the seven Colorado River basin states, the Republic of Mexico, the U.S. government, Native American Tribes, conservation interests and other non-governmental organizations together earlier this year to complete historic drought contingency plans.
Water users in the Colorado River Basin have survived the drought through a combination of water storage infrastructure and voluntary actions to protect reservoir storage and water supply. Adoption of drought contingency plans this summer, developed over years of collaborative negotiation, takes the next step by implementing mandatory action to reduce risk and protect limited water supplies.
I agree with others who believe John Wesley Powell would be happy with the level and success of collaboration in the Colorado River Basin; collaboration that helps focus governance on community and local needs along the river.
On Aug.15 the Bureau of Reclamation released its 2020 operational plans for Lake Mead and Lake Powell. Looking ahead, we are pleased that the basin will avoid deep water delivery reductions or face rapidly-declining reservoirs next year. That’s welcome news and reflects the impact of 2019’s excellent snowpack and runoff into Lake Powell and Lake Mead. That above-average runoff pushed today’s total system storage to 55 percent of capacity. But, one good year can’t undo nearly two decades of drought. We must remain focused on infrastructure improvement, conservation and other efforts to protect the Colorado River’s precious limited water.
John Wesley Powell’s courage and vision introduced America to the treasure that is the Colorado River. Our courage and vision must equal his as we confront challenges like ongoing drought and growing demand throughout the basin. Like we’ve done for the 150 years since Powell first explored those awe-inspiring canyons, we must continue to collaborate and cooperate to find innovative water management solutions for today and future generations. That’s our mandate and, if recent drought contingency plans are an indication, we are up to the task.
Brenda Burman is the commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The Bureau of Reclamation is a contemporary water management agency and the largest wholesale provider of water in the country. It brings water to more than 31 million people and provides one out of five Western farmers with irrigation water for farmland that produces much of the nation’s produce. It is also the second largest producer of hydroelectric power in the country.
Here’s an in-depth look at governance in the Colorado River Basin in the coming years from Bruce Finley writing for The Denver Post. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:
The grand bargain concept arose from increasing anxiety in booming Colorado and the other upper-basin states — New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — about their plight of being legally roped into sending more water downriver, even if dry winters, new population growth and development made that impossible without shutting faucets…
Total water is decreasing in the 1,450-mile river, which trickles from high mountain snow northwest of Denver and carves canyons up to a mile deep. Over the last 15 years, amid a climate shift toward aridity, warming has reduced the river’s flows by at least 6%, according to research based on federal hydrology and temperature data.
Yet the Colorado River remains the primary water source for an expanding population of 40 million people and 90% of the nation’s winter vegetable production — one of the most over-allocated rivers in the world, with water taken out each year exceeding natural flows from rain and snow.
The grand bargain would remove the legal right to “call,” or demand, more water during dry times that was established by the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
Colorado farmers and Front Range cities no longer would face the threat of downriver states legally mandating that more water be left in the river, forcing shut-offs. In return, lower-basin states would be guaranteed a set amount, possibly less than what they’re currently using, and gain time to stop their steady draw-down of the Lake Mead reservoir, which remains less than half full even after a wet winter. The upriver Lake Powell reservoir, also less than half full, would serve as storage to help lower states adjust to living on less water…
California officials this week indicated an interest in exploring new ways to address climate warming impacts. But Chris Harris, director of the Colorado River Board of California, told The Denver Post his state is not ready to discuss any specific bargain that would require giving up a legal right to “call” for more water. And John Entsminger, manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority manager and his state’s chief negotiator, questioned how the bargain would help the lower states.
The serious behind-the-scenes contemplation of this bargain “reflects the current conditions on the river — the extended drought we’ve been through, the speed at which the system has gone down, the reality of a warming climate and what that is going to mean for flows,” said Jim Lochhead, the manager of Denver Water who previously served as Colorado’s director of natural resources and represented the state in river negotiations with other western states.
While Lochhead discussed the bargain in an interview with the Post, he said he hasn’t taken a formal position supporting any specific proposal.
“What we need is some kind of arrangement that gives the lower basin time to manage demands and solve their structural deficit problems” — overuse — “and also provide some assurance, in exchange for that time, to the upper basin that we are not going to be facing a legal crisis in the form of a compact ‘call’ or some type of curtailment,” Lochhead said.
“From a Colorado perspective, my interest would be that Western Slope irrigated agriculture and the economy on the Western Slope be protected, and, obviously, that Front Range municipalities that rely on the Colorado River be protected in our water supplies. … That would be our starting point,” he said.
“Given the status of the reservoirs. … the speed at which Powell and Mead have dropped, we don’t have the luxury to take a lot of time and deal around the edges of the problems. We need to think about some bigger, and different, solution to resolve the deficit that is staring us all in the face.”
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Last winter’s big snowpack has helped ease the impacts that long-term drought has had on water storage in the Colorado River watershed, but reservoir storage levels are still low enough that provisions of a new drought contingency plan in Lower Basin states already are kicking in.
Some water officials and conservationists say the triggering of plan components reflects the fact that a single bountiful water year is far from enough for storage to recover from a mostly dry period dating back to 2000, and recently adopted drought planning measures are needed to prepare for the very real possibility that drier years will return. Those measures involve Upper Basin states including Colorado.
The reductions that the Lower Basin drought contingency plan already is requiring show that in its first year, the plan “is already working,” Chuck Cullom, Colorado River programs manager for Arizona’s Central Arizona Project, wrote in a blog on that entity’s website.
The Central Arizona Project is a water provider that will see its supplies reduced by 192,000 acre-feet next year under the plan’s provisions. That is the entire part of the state of Arizona’s Colorado River water allocation that the state instead will leave in Lake Mead under the plan, as a result of projected water levels in that reservoir at the start of next year. Nevada and Mexico also will leave smaller amounts of their allocation in Lake Mead under the plan and a separate agreement involving Mexico.
The actions are required based on a Colorado River Basin report released Thursday by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. It projects that Lake Mead will begin next year with water at an elevation of 1,089.4 feet. That’s less than a foot under a 1,090-foot threshold set by the Lower Basin drought contingency plan, below which the mandatory austerity measures begin. California will have to start leaving a portion of its allocation in the reservoir should surface levels go below 1,045 feet.
Lake Mead and Lake Powell upstream of it serve as the two largest storage pools in the Colorado River Basin. The Bureau of Reclamation reported that thanks to above-average snowpack, runoff from the Upper Basin into Lake Powell was 145 percent of average from April through July, raising Powell’s elevation by more than 50 feet. But it is projected to remain 81 feet below full as of the start of next year.
The Bureau of Reclamation says that total Colorado River system storage today is at 55% of capacity, up from 49% a year ago…
“One wet year doesn’t change the fact that we have a lot left to do,” said Bart Miller with the Western Resource Advocates conservation group.
He said the big snowpack provides some breathing room in dealing with the longer-term drought. Both Mead and Powell were full in 2000, before the river basin began experiencing a trend of far more dry years than wet ones, he said. The drought contingency planning is an effort to get out ahead of the problem and prevent larger-scale shortages, Miller said…
Drought contingency plans involving the Lower and Upper Basin states and the federal government took effect with their passage by Congress earlier this year. The Upper Basin plan includes provisions to operate reservoirs above Powell as needed to try to keep Powell’s water high enough to continue generating power at Glen Canyon Dam. But another part of the Upper Basin plan involves investigating the use of demand management if needed in the event of a worsening drought, to avoid a forced curtailment of Upper Basin water uses to satisfy water obligations to Lower Basin states under a 1922 compact.
In Colorado, water officials are looking into the possibility of voluntary, compensated, temporary demand management approaches as a means of staving off mandatory, unpaid curtailments under the compact. It’s expected that many demand management approaches would involve Western Slope agricultural operations.
Pokrandt said the milestone of the Lower Basin drought contingency provisions kicking in “certainly highlights the need” to determine if a demand management program is feasible. The Colorado Water Conservation Board recently created nine workgroups that have begun exploring the feasibility of such an approach, and entities including the river district and Grand Valley Water Users Association also are investigating the concept, Pokrandt said.
Here’s the release from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (Rebecca Kimitch/Maritza Fairfield):
Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, issues the following statement on the Bureau of Reclamation’s latest 24-month study on Colorado River system reservoir conditions:
“We’re certainly grateful that nature provided some relief to the critical conditions in the Colorado River Basin. But the Southwest wouldn’t be in this encouraging position without also the successful collaboration of the Colorado River Basin states to develop the Drought Contingency Plan. The DCP wasn’t just about sharing the pain of potential water cutbacks; one of its primary benefits was to incentivize storage in Lake Mead. It creates new storage opportunities for California, Arizona and Nevada and increases the flexibility to access stored water.
“Today is evidence the DCP is working as we hoped. By the end of the year, the Lower Basin states and Mexico together anticipate storing an additional 700,000 acre-feet of conserved water in Lake Mead in 2019 – a record amount that will boost the lake’s elevation by nearly
9 feet. Metropolitan alone will store 400,000 acre-feet this year, bringing our total stored in the lake to nearly 1 million acre-feet, another record.
“While all that storage helps keep Lake Mead out of shortage, it also helps prepare Southern California for our state’s next drought. Being able to store water when it is available for use in times when it is not is the key to ensuring the region has reliable water in the future. We got some reprieve from drought conditions on the Colorado River this year, but Lake Mead is still less than half full. And climate change is likely to lead to drier conditions in our future. As we begin work to resolve the water supply imbalance on the river, we’re pleased the DCP helped address the immediate concerns.”